Federal Explainer

Richard W. Riley, Sixth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library Staff — August 18, 2017 5 min read
Pres. Bill Clinton, right, talks to Education Secretary-designate Richard Riley, center, on the viewing stand, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1993, Washington, D.C.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Biographical Information: Riley was born in Greenville County, S.C., on Jan. 2, 1933. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Furman University and served in the U.S. Navy before earning a law degree from the University of South Carolina. From 1963 to 1977 he was a state representative and state senator and served for two terms as the governor of South Carolina, from 1978 to 1986. As governor, Riley focused heavily on education and passed the Education Improvement Act, which overhauled the public school system in the state. He is currently co-chair of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and is a senior partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

Served Under: President Bill Clinton

Dates of Tenure: 1993-2001

Fun Fact: Riley was the longest-serving secretary of education and the only one to hold the position for both terms of a two-term president.

Highlights of Tenure:

  • Riley advocated the creation of the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program, which allows schools and libraries to receive discounted Internet and telephone rates.
  • An advocate for technology in the classroom, Riley hosted the first Secretary’s Conference on Education Technology.
  • The Education Department issued the first federal grants to charter schools under Riley.

Archives of Note:

A Survey of State Initiatives
Gov. Richard W. Riley of South Carolina in June signed into law a $1 million appropriation for the training and retraining of mathematics and science teachers. An effort to expand the program to teachers other than those in math and science was defeated. The guidelines for the program will be written by the state board of education, a spokesman for Governor Riley said. Most programs will be run by local districts with the state money, he said. (July 27, 1983)

Riley, Colleagues ‘Get Outside Beltway’ To Push for Goals 2000
Mr. Riley has acknowledged that he did not spend much time on public relations during his first year in office, when he concentrated on winning passage of the proposed “Goals 2000: Educate America Act” and other legislative initiatives, which are likely to come to fruition this year. (Feb. 9, 1994)

Riley Sees ED Role in Pushing Use of Technology
The U.S. Education Department and other federal agencies should collaborate with state and local education officials and the private sector to help develop universal classroom access to electronic-communications networks, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told an audience of technology-using educators here last week. (May 18, 1994)

Riley, Lawmakers Debate Federal Role in Schools
Nearly three dozen religious leaders put aside theological differences to join Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in a holiday-season declaration supporting family involvement in education. (Jan. 18, 1995)

Riley Announces First Charter School Grants, New Study
The Education Department has issued the first federal grants in support of charter schools. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley announced last month that more than $5 million will be distributed to eight states. Another $78,000 will go to two individual schools in New Mexico. (Oct. 4, 1995)

Riley: ESEA Plan Will Push Teacher Quality
The Department of Education will not seek a major overhaul of Title I in this year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told members of Congress last week. (Feb. 17, 1999)

The Gentleman From South Carolina
To the surprise of some skeptics, Richard W. Riley has emerged as the longest-serving U.S. education secretary in the history of the Cabinet post. The softspoken former governor has drawn upon the experiences he forged over a lifetime in public service. (Sept. 8, 1999)

Riley Releases New Class-Size Report
In its first year, President Clinton’s highly touted federal class-size-reduction program helped nearly two-thirds of the nation’s elementary schools hire an estimated 29,000 new teachers, according to a report released last week by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. (Sept. 13, 2000)

Riley Grilled on Travel, Department Fraud Allegations
In a recent congressional hearing, Republicans grilled Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley on financial-management practices at the Department of Education and the secretary’s travel schedule. (Nov. 1, 2000)

Former Ed. Secretary Riley Says Law Needs Change of Emphasis
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley says the federal No Child Left Behind Act merits some tinkering to shift its emphasis from “compliance” back to teaching and learning. (Sept. 20, 2004)

Commentaries by Richard W. Riley:

School’s Out For Riley
Whoever is tapped to be the next secretary of education will have a tough act to follow. Richard Riley, the former South Carolina governor who’s held the position since 1993, is respected by both politicos and regular folks for his integrity and down-home style. In September, Riley met with contributing writer Joetta L. Sack to discuss his legacy---and to make one last pitch to teachers to get involved in policy reform. Secretary hopefuls, listen and learn. (Nov. 1, 2000)

Investment Without Invective
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley offers his opinions on the new administration’s education initiatives, congressional action on those initiatives, and the present position of the federal Education Department. (Jul. 11, 2001)

A Compass in the Storm
What does it take to form effective school-business partnerships at a time when concern about excess commercialism in schools fosters scrutiny of such relationships? Former U.S. Secretaries of Education Lamar Alexander and Richard W. Riley offer “guiding principles.” (Oct. 9, 2002)

Before the ‘Either-Or’ Era
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and his longtime adviser Terry K. Peterson share in the following essay their reflections on those experiences, as seen through the prism of “A Nation at Risk,” the influential 1983 critique of American education. (Sept. 19, 2008)

Civic Investment and the ‘Skyboxing’ of Education
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley writes about the importance of civic investment in schools, particularly in these days of slashed education budgets. (Jun. 24, 2011)

    Additional Resources
    Department of Education A short biography from the Department of Education archives
    Nelson Mullins A short biography focused on Riley’s professional achievements
    Walden University The Richard Riley College of Education at Walden University

    How to Cite This Article
    Education Week Library Staff. (2017, August 18). Richard W. Riley, Sixth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/richard-w-riley-sixth-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08


    English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
    Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Mathematics Webinar
    Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
    Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
    Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
    Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
    The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

    EdWeek Top School Jobs

    Teacher Jobs
    Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
    View Jobs
    Principal Jobs
    Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
    View Jobs
    Administrator Jobs
    Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
    View Jobs
    Support Staff Jobs
    Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
    View Jobs

    Read Next

    Federal Schools Could Count Nonbinary Students Under Biden Proposal
    The Civil Rights Data Collection for this school year could also revive questions about inexperienced teachers and preschool discipline.
    6 min read
    Image of a form with male and female checkboxes.
    Federal 'Parents' Bill of Rights' Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools
    U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's bill highlights how education issues like critical race theory will likely stay in the national political spotlight.
    7 min read
    Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
    U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., says "it's time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats."
    Patrick Semansky/AP
    Federal Opinion It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem
    Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want.
    4 min read
    Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
    DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
    Federal Dept. of Ed., Florida Continue to Battle Over Ban on School Mask Mandates
    Federal officials say they’ll intervene if the Florida Dept. of Ed. goes ahead with sanctions on districts with mask mandates.
    Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald
    2 min read
    Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
    Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
    Wilfredo Lee/AP